Conflict of interest questions add to scrutiny of Trump’s Ukraine envoy

By David Herszenhorn

Mediating peace between Russia and Ukraine was supposed to be a part-time job for Kurt Volker, but he's now at the center of a full-blown scandal — with questions about his conduct that are separate from the alleged pressure campaign that could lead to President Donald Trump's impeachment.

As Trump's special representative for Ukraine negotiations, Volker supported a shift in policy to send lethal weapons to Kyiv, including tank-busting Javelins missiles, described by their manufacturer as "the world's most versatile and lethal one-man-portable, anti-tank, guided munition and surveillance weapon system."

But at the same time Volker was pushing Trump to arm Ukraine, he also held positions with a major lobbying firm, BGR Group, and a think tank, the McCain Institute, that each had financial ties to Raytheon Co., which manufactures the Javelin system and earned millions from Trump's decision.

Volker, a career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, resigned on Friday, a day after he was referenced in the whistleblower complaint alleging Trump improperly pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the business dealings of former Vice President Joe Biden's son.

The whistleblower complaint has emboldened congressional Democrats to push forward with an impeachment inquiry against Trump. But it has also drawn uncomfortable attention to Volker and the unusual arrangement by which he served as Trump's special envoy — essentially as a volunteer while maintaining other paid jobs, including as executive director of the McCain Institute, a Washington think tank named for the late Republican Sen. John McCain, of Arizona.

Volker has not been accused of violating any conflict-of-interest rules. But his resignation is likely to fuel further investigations beyond his unorthodox role working with Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in pressing Ukrainian officials on Trump's behalf. Congress is now all but certain to scrutinize his conduct as special envoy, a post to which he was appointed on July 7, 2017, by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He now leaves with Ukraine and Russia no closer to peace.

Supporters of Volker point to his distinguished record as a career diplomat and national security official in Washington, and say his actions were likely well-intentioned.

In his written complaint, the whistleblower wrote that Volker visited Kyiv on July 26, the day after a controversial phone call in which Trump asked Zelesnky for a "favor” and to work with Giuliani, who was pushing for the investigation of the Bidens. The whistleblower said Volker was accompanied by the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and that they met with Zelensky and other officials and tried to help them understand and deal with Giuliani's requests. The whistleblower also said Volker and Sondland spoke to Giuliani in an effort to "contain the damage" to U.S. national security from Giuliani's seemingly freelance foreign policy efforts.

But in a television appearance on Thursday, Giuliani held up an iPad to display text messages allegedly from Volker and insisted that Volker and others in the State Department were fully aware of what he was doing in Ukraine.

“He should step forward and explain what he did,” Giuliani said of Volker. “The whistleblower falsely alleges that I was operating on my own. Well, I wasn’t operating on my own!”

Volker and Sondland did not respond to messages requesting comment. Sondland, who is based in Brussels, also declined a request for an interview about his role in visiting Ukraine.

But some foreign policy experts have said questions should have been raised about Volker's arrangement from the moment he was appointed, effectively to act as a part-time mediator for the Ukraine crisis while retaining his other jobs

And at least one good government group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it was reviewing the matter. “We think it raises a lot of questions, and we’re looking into it,” Noah Bookbinder, the group’s executive director, said.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.

Jeffrey Birnbaum, a spokesman for BGR, has told POLITICO that Volker had recused himself from any issues related to the firm’s work for the Ukrainian government. Volker had been employed by the firm in 2011 and 2012 as a managing director — a fact noted on his State Department biography.

BGR’s contract with the Ukrainian government began in January 2017, when Volker was a paid consultant but before he was named as special representative. But while BGR stressed that Volker had recused himself from issues related to Ukraine, Volker’s remit as special envoy was far wider, giving him broad responsibilities in discussions with Russia as well as privileged access to information about U.S. and EU sanctions policies — matters of intense interest to military defense contractors, energy companies, financial firms and an array of other commercial sectors.

Birnbaum said he was unaware of Volker’s broader role and could not comment on whether the wider portfolio had been taken into account when deciding whether he should recuse from issues related to Ukraine — a step that might be more fitting had Volker been ambassador in Kyiv.

According to federal disclosure records, Raytheon, the maker of the Javelin shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon, has retained BGR for lobbying services for years.

And disclosure records also show that Raytheon, like many U.S. military and defense contractors, has been a corporate donor to the McCain Institute. The late Arizona senator was a former prisoner of war in Vietnam and long served as either the chairman of or the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and was heavily active on defense issues and in military contracting.

Raytheon and its partner, Lockheed Martin, have multimillion-dollar contracts to manufacture the Javelin, including for Ukraine. The Javelin is built at a plant in Tuscon, Ariz., the late McCain's home state.

A message sent to Raytheon’s public relations department was not immediately answered on Saturday.

Volker began advocating for sending lethal weapons to Ukraine almost immediately after he was named as the special representative for Ukraine negotiations.

"Defensive weapons, ones that would allow Ukraine to defend itself, and to take out tanks for example, would actually help" deter Russian aggression against Ukraine, Volker said in a BBC interview on July 25, 2017, just three weeks after taking up the post. "I'm not again predicting where we go on this. That's a matter for further discussion and decision. But I think that argument that it would be provocative to Russia or emboldening of Ukraine is just getting it backwards."

Within days of that interview, the Pentagon and State Department presented a plan recommending sending weapons to Ukraine to Trump. Congress authorized arming the Ukrainian military through legislation adopted in 2014, but President Barack Obama had refused to send lethal weapons, siding instead with advisers who warned that arming the Ukrainian military would only inflame the conflict and cause more casualties because the U.S. could not provide sufficient arms to match Russia's overwhelming military superiority.

Volker's position in favor of providing weapons was consistent with his longstanding hawkish views toward Russia, so there is no suggestion that any financial arrangement had swayed his views.

In a news conference call in May, Volker strongly defended the Trump administration’s decision to supply lethal weapons and said he expected support to continue.

“Ukraine, as any other country in the world, has a right to self-defense,” Volker said in a response to a question about whether the supply of weapons would continue. “For some reason, there was a decision here in a previous administration not to help Ukraine with its defensive capabilities, at least lethal defensive capabilities. That is something that has now been lifted, and the United States is prepared to work with Ukraine, just as we do with countries around the world in supporting their legitimate defense needs.”

Asked for information about specific new weapons systems that might be sent to Kyiv in 2020, Volker said he did not know.

“I do not know the names of the specific systems,” he said. “I do know that the process here is one where the Congress appropriates the funding, the Pentagon sits down Ukrainian defense leadership, we talk through exactly what the needs are, how they should be addressed and what systems are best in doing so.”

But if there is little doubt that Volker was a longtime hawk on Russia policy, questions still remain about whether his private business associates might have benefited from his role as the special representative, just as Giuliani, the president’s private lawyer, was apparently gaining access to Ukrainian officials through Volker’s contacts.

While other former diplomats have returned to active service, they typically take steps to eliminate any conflicts. For example, William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, has returned to Kyiv to temporarily replace Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted by Trump and branded by him as "bad news." But in doing so, Taylor gave up a position as vice president at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington and is no longer listed on its web site.

In yet another sign of how tangled relations can be in the murky world of post-Soviet diplomacy, Volker is also a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank that has extensive ties in Ukraine and receives financial support for some of its Ukraine-related work from Burisma, the gas company whose board Hunter Biden joined in 2014.

Whatever Volker, Sondland and Giuliani were up to in recent months, there is sober recognition in Kyiv that little, if any, of it was actually focused on helping Ukraine in any substantive way to end its conflict with Russia.

At a joint news appearance with Zelensky in New York on Wednesday, Trump boasted about his decision to supply Javelins but also made clear that he has little interest in the ongoing conflict and expects Kyiv to work out its issues with Moscow. He told Zelensky that he should demand more help from EU countries.

"Well, we're working with Ukraine. And we want other countries to work with Ukraine," Trump said. "When I say 'work,' I'm referring to money. They should put up more money. We put up a lot of money. I gave you anti-tank busters that — frankly, President Obama was sending you pillows and sheets. And I gave you anti-tank busters. And a lot of people didn’t want to do that, but I did it."

Nahal Toosi and Blake Hounshell contributed to this report.